Tag: Britain

Story of the week: Discovering Britain’s favourite islands

02-Central-Maya, Derwentwater

They are rural retreats – a remote Shangri-La away from the madding crowd.

The numerous small islands off the British coastline offer a glimpse of life at different pace.

We discover some of the best island escapes around the UK.

Brownsea Island, Dorset 

It has been used as a daffodil farm, a pottery works and a decoy to protect Poole during the Second World War.

Two-thirds of the island was burnt in 1934 and, from 1927-1961, the island was owned by Mrs Bonham-Cristie, who let the island become a virtual wilderness.

On her death it was bought by the National Trust and today this island nature reserve is an ideal natural setting for walks, picnics and wildlife – look out for the rare red squirrels.

Brownsea Island is the largest island in Poole Harbour with half-hourly boat services running from Poole Quay and Sandbanks throughout the summer.

The island offers superb views across to Studland, Old Harry Rocks and the Purbeck Hills, while the natural habitat offers the run of pinewoods, heathland and lagoons where breeding birds collect.

Most of all, Brownsea is known worldwide as the birthplace of the Scout and Guide movement after Robert Baden-Powell held the first ever experimental Scout camp here in 1907.


Silver Holme, Cumbria

Following the recent release of the film Miss Potter, starring Renée Zellwegger as the author Beatrix Potter, there has been a boom in literary tourism to the Lake District.

But this is nothing new. The islands of Lake Windemere, England’s largest lake, have provided inspiration to Britain’s literary heavyweights for centuries with references dating back to Wordsworth’s poem The Prelude.

Today Silver Holme, located about 50m from the western shoreline, may look like just a rather nondescript lump of rock for nesting wild fowl and birdlife.

It is, however, the best known of the lake’s 14 islands as being the inspiration for Wildcat Island in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books. Ransome himself is buried at nearby Coltin Parish Church.

All but one of Windemere’s islands has open access and boats can be hired from charter companies in Bowness Bay; the cruise boats on Windermere also stop at the island.


Flat Holm, Bristol Channel

This island sanctuary off the coast of southeast Wales is rich in wildlife and historical lore.

Located just five miles from Cardiff in the busy shipping lanes where the Bristol Channel meets the Severn estuary, boat trips depart from Barry Island Harbour for the 30-minute journey from March through to October.

Flat Holm’s first incarnation stems from the Dark Ages, when it was a retreat for monks. Since then it has been the domain of silver miners, smugglers and cholera victims. It is perhaps best known, however, for receiving the first ever radio message across water sent by Marconi in 1897.

Today, 500m in diameter and totally flat, Flat Holm is a site of special scientific interest and a local nature reserve at the most southerly point in Wales.

It is home to one of the largest colonies of gulls in Wales plus a summer carpet of rare and exotic wild flowers.

Visitors are warned to wear a hat to ward off the defensive dive-bombing of the gulls during breeding season.

For local residents, the iconic image of Flat Holm is its lighthouse, which was first lit on December 1st, 1737, following a tragic accident in 1736 when sixty soldiers were drowned and their vessel wrecked near the Holm.

This has steered sailors through the perils of the Bristol Channel ever since with Trinity House responsible for its upkeep since 1823.


Eel Pie Island, London 

Nestled amongst the twists and turns of the River Thames are a handful of highly salubrious island getaways with a surprisingly colourful past.

The most rock n’ roll of these is, without doubt, Eel Pie Island, which is tucked inside the Thames at Twickenham.

Formerly known as Twickenham Ait, it has been connected to the London borough of Richmond since 1957 by a footbridge.

Today the island has a population of around 120 people and nature reserves at either end. It is home to Twickenham Rowing Club, one of the oldest rowing clubs on the Thames, and a community of artists.

Its biggest claim to fame, however, is as a hotbed of musical heritage.

The Eel Pie Studios, owned by The Who guitarist Pete Townshend, provided the location for the recording of numerous rock albums. The Eel Pie Island Hotel was a major venue for Britain’s burgeoning rock scene in the late 1960s with the likes of The Yardbirds, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones all taking the island by storm.

The hotel met a sad demise in a fire in 1971, but the island’s infamy lives on in the stories, poems and songs of the musicians who played there.


Alney Island, Gloucestershire

Around one mile from the centre of Gloucester, where the River Severn splits, Alney Island Nature Reserve is a wetland area within spiting distance of an urban centre.

The island boasts traditional wet grassland and marshy areas that attract all sorts of wildlife, such as buzzards, kestrels and grey herons.

All this is a far cry from the original use of the land: Gloucester’s original 1.5-mile racecourse.

The races were regularly held here until 1839 and, at the time, the course was deemed far superior to the one at Cheltenham, which today dominates the local racing scene.

At the peak of racing fever, campaigners handed out leaflets to the crowd warning of the dangers of gambling and drinking, while police reinforcements and plain-clothes detectives were called in from Birmingham and Bristol.

Today it’s a more tranquil location with guided nature walks in summer taking in the natural attractions – book through the rangers office. In particular, it island offers a rare opportunity to spot wading birds.


Inchmurrin Island, Loch Lomond

Inchmurrin is the largest inland island in Britain and the most southerly on Loch Lomond.

Located just thirty minutes from Glasgow and a short ferry crossing from Midross, it has been privately owned by the Scott family for the past 70 years. Open access ensures, however, that walkers and birdwatchers are welcome to visit this lost-in-time rural idyll.

The island is steeped in history with its roll call of visitors, according to legend, including Scottish folk heroes Robert the Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots.

The ruins of a 7th-century monastery and Lennox Castle can still be visited, but today there’s a population of just 10 residents, plus beef cattle, goats and pheasants.

The most evocative way to visit the island, however, is by taking the Mailboat, which delivers mail to four islands on the Loch – Inchtavannich, Inchmurrin, Inchcruin and Inchfad – every day during summer, except Tuesdays and Sundays, and less frequently in winter.

The mail service since been a fixture of life on the Loch since 1948 and riding the boat out amongst the tranquil waters is like stepping back in time.


Derwent Island, Cumbria

The largest and only inhabited island on Derwentwater [pictured above], Derwent Island is a reclusive place open to the public for just a few days each year.

Those lucky enough to enjoy an exclusive visit have access to the 18th-century house, which is managed by the National Trust and set in an idyllic woodland setting.

The island has a varied history ranging from the 12th century, when it was owned by Fountains Abbey as part of their Borrowdale estate, to being sold it in 1778 to Joseph Pocklington of Nottinghamshire, one of the first men of wealth to settle in the Lake District for its scenic beauty.

He named it Pocklington’s Island and built a giant, elaborate villa, which moved Wordsworth himself to ridicule the building as “A warren-house reared upon an eminence for the detection of depredators.”

Access to the island is by boat on timed ticket only. It’s a rare opportunity to visit a local legend.


Carsington Water, Derbyshire

The valley now filled by the Carsington Reservoir dates back to around 2000 BC with archaeological excavations uncovering flints and knives from the Bronze Age.

Carsington Water was officially opened by the Queen in 1992 and has gone on to become one of Derbyshire’s most popular tourist attractions for its family-friendly ethos and sense of discovery.

Connected to the mainland by a causeway, Carsington Water now features several elements around the central reservoir.

Stones Island, erected in 1992, follows in the long tradition in Derbyshire of hill-top monuments with a series of contemporary monoliths which have holes to offer different views across the island.

Close by is a wildlife centre from where you can study Carsington’s varied birdlife, while along the bankside towards Carsington village are three bird-hides where you can spot nesting bird species.

For walkers, bikers and horse riders there is a circular path around the conservation villages of Carsington and Hopton, while anglers and sailors are common place on busy summer weekends.


Lundy Island, Devon

Located in the Bristol Channel, about 11 miles off the coast of North Devon, Lundy Island is a granite outcrop rising 400 feet above sea level.

Unlike some other islands, however, this place has both a life of its own: a 13th-century castle, a Victorian church, shop, pub and a population of about 18. You can even buy Lundy stamps as proof of your visit.

The island is best known as a marine conservation area and remains a haven for nature lovers with communities of migratory seabirds and seals. Popular activities include climbing, walking and bird watching.

You can also stay on the island in a holiday cottage administered by The Landmark Trust, which manages the island. Properties range from a stone cottage that sleeps just one person to a lighthouse and a converted pigsty.

During summer months the island enjoys good connections to the mainland with regular boat services from Bideford or Illfracombe, a journey that commands breathtaking views of the North Devon coast.

A helicopter service also operates from Hartland Point for a quick lunch stop with a difference.


* This story was first published by Forward Publishing in 2007. Liked this? Try also Meeting the king of Cumbria’s Piel Island.

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Story of the week: Discovering public art around England


* Image: Krzysztof Nowakowski for www.dphotographer.co.uk

They bring new meaning to ‘the greatest show on earth.’

Permanent works of art are now part of the British landscape and examples of monumental art have become part of our heritage over the years.

We discover some of the best for a day trip around the UK:

The Headington Shark, Oxford

A shark became the most famous resident of Oxford’s Headington district when it landed on the roof of 2 New High Street on 9 August, 1986.

The private residence is the home of BBC Radio Oxford presenter, Bill Heine, who commissioned the shark and still owns the house. The headless sculpture, officially called ‘Untitled 1986’, was erected on the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

Created by the sculptor John Buckley, it is made of fibreglass and is 25 feet long. The shark had to be winched up by a crane overnight and local police were powerless to intervene as there is no UK legislation to prevent a man from putting a shark on his own roof.

Oxford City Council subsequently tried to get rid of the shark on the grounds that it was dangerous to the public, but engineers inspected the roof girders that had been specially installed to support it and pronounced the erection safe.

Today the shark lives on and, in the words of Heine: “{it} says something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki.”


Another Place, Merseyside

There’s a crowd gathering on Crosby beach – about 100 of them, in fact.

Cast-iron, life-size figures every one, they spread out along 3km of the foreshore, stretching almost 1km out to sea. Merseyside’s latest favourite artwork, Another Place, is the creation of Anthony Gormley, the winner of the 1994 Turner Prize and the man best known for his controversial sculpture, The Angel of the North (see below).

The Another Place figures, each one weighing 650kg, are made from casts of the artist’s own body, a trademark of Gormley’s work, and are shown at different stages of rising out of the sand, all of them staring out to the horizon in silent expectation.

The artist has described his work as a poetic response to the universal sentiments associated with emigration – sadness at leaving, but the hope of a new future in another place. It has proven so popular that a campaign is now under way to keep the work in Crosby and not relocated, as previously planned, to, well, another place.


Angel of the North, Gateshead

She has a captive audience of over 90,000 motorists each day, plus rail passengers travelling on the East Coast mainline from London to Edinburgh.

She’s taller at 20m high than a five-storey building and has a wingspan of 54m wide – almost the same as a jumbo jet. The 208-tonne Angel of the North has gone from controversy to garnering praise as a landmark site for the Northeast England and one of Britain’s most important contemporary public artworks.

Another creation by Anthony Gormley (see above), he designed the stark, landscape-dominating sculpture as a link between earth and sky. The Angel is built to last for more than 100 years and withstand winds of more than 100 miles per hour, constructed from weather resistant steel that mellows with age.

The lady is not beyond some minor tinkering, however: the body is hollow to allow for internal inspections with an access door high up on her shoulder blade.


Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield

Founded in 1977 and set in the beautiful grounds and gardens of a 500-acre, 18th-century country estate, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is one of the Britain’s leading open-air galleries with a changing programme of international exhibitions.

Most of all, it is synonymous with its display of 50-odd outdoor sculptures, of which the ten works by Henry Moore, the iconic figure of the Yorkshire sculpture scene, are the best known.

Scattered around the wide-open fields of the park, Moore’s works include Reclining Figure Arch Leg, located by the entrance as you drive up with the park stretching out behind it; and Draped Seated Women, one of his most-detailed female figures.

Get there for the 10am opening to enjoy the quietest time of the day and try to visit mid week rather than a Sunday to soak up the juxtaposition of nature and sculpture without the hordes. Unlike some stuffy indoor galleries, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is ideal for families.


B of the Bang, Manchester

Manchester has changed dramatically since the city hosted the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

And nothing symbolises the urban renaissance of the city quite like B of the Bang, designed by the Heatherwick Studio and inspired by Olympic Gold Medal winning sprinter Linford Christie, who said that he started his race on the B of the Bang.

Today the sculpture is based at the City of Manchester Stadium, home of Manchester City Football Club. The sculpture is inclined at an angle of thirty degrees from the vertical and represents a major challenge of both construction and engineering.

B of the Bang is made of 180 steel spikes, including its five legs, which are arranged in elliptical clusters that radiate outwards from a single central point. The highest point of the sculpture is 55.44m above ground level, and 56m above the foundations to its five legs.

This makes the B of the Bang the tallest sculpture in the United Kingdom and just pips the 55.9m-high Leaning Tower of Pisa.

* It was subsequently melted down – see www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-18703854

The Scallop, Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Benjamin Britten used to take his afternoon constitutional along Aldeburgh’s windswept beach, a short distance north of the town centre.

To commemorate Britain’s legacy, the Suffolk-based artist and sculptor Maggi Hambling, also known for her memorial to Oscar Wilde in central London, created Scallop, a 4m-high sculpture in stainless steel.

The piece is made up of two interlocking scallop shells, each broken, the upright shell being pierced with the words: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned.” The wording is taken from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.

Hambling unveiled her opus work to a storm of controversy in November 2003. The artist claimed she hopes people will take a seat on the clam and enjoy the view, but opinion among the local community was deeply divided.

In the first three months of 2004, the sculpture was twice vandalised by pouring paint over it; it was subsequently attacked with graffiti and there have been petitions to have it removed – controversy rages to this day.


The Willow Man, near Bridgwater, Somerset

Don’t panic: this is nothing to do the recent turkey of a film staring Nicholas Cage. It’s not even about the seminal 1973 original staring Edward Woodward.

The Willow Man is, in fact, southern England’s answer to the Angel of the North, an iconic image of Somerset’s rich willow heritage.

Immense wickerwork figures have been part of the English landscape since the time of the druids and the sculpture by the artist Serena de la Hay, who specialises in working with willow, was unveiled as a celebration of a rustic cottage industry. The creation subsequently burned down in May 2001, however, and the artists had to start on a replacement.

Today a new version of the man stands proud once more after the artist painstakingly reworked the fire-damaged structure.


The Cerne Abbas Giant, Dorset

Drivers with delicate sensibilities are advised to avert their gaze when travelling along the A352 towards Sherborne.

The sight of a giant figure of a naked and impressively well-endowed man, on a hillside near the village of Cerne Abbas to the north of Dorchester, is quite an eyebrow raiser. The Cerne Abbas Giant or ‘Rude Man’ is the largest hill figure in Britain, and one of two representations of the human form along with the Long Man of Wilmington in East Sussex.

The origins of the 55m-high figure, carved in solid lines from the chalk bedrock, remains a source of dispute. Like other chalk figures carved into the English countryside, the Cerne Abbas giant is often mistakenly thought of as an ancient creation.

His history, however, can only be traced back to the late 17th century. Indeed, it is now believed that he was probably etched during the English Civil War. There has even been speculation that the figure is a parody of Oliver Cromwell, who was sometimes mockingly referred to as “England’s Hercules” by his enemies.

Either way, the combination of the enormous knobbed club, 36.5m long, and his equally impressive phallic talent, make for a distinctive landmark.


The Concrete Cows of Milton Keynes

It was the cows that did it for Milton Keynes.

The new city has one of the largest collections of outdoor public art in England with over 230 pieces of art located inside its boundaries. Since it’s inception in 1967, the city has commissioned numerous pieces, involving communities in the process, which vary in form from playground designs to street furniture.

The best-known example is, however, the Concrete Cows, designed by Canadian-born artist/sculptress Liz Leyh at Stacey Hill Farm, now the home of Milton Keynes Museum. Commissioned in 1978 using recycled materials, the work is among the earliest examples of conceptual art – the artist poking fun at the preconceived notion of the new city.

Their arrival was not greeted with universal acclaim. Indeed, during their lifetime the cows have been kidnapped twice, had pyjamas bottoms painted on them, been beheaded in the style of a Damien Hirst artwork and have acquired BSE (mad cow disease) graffiti.

The cows have had the last laugh: today they graze in peace.


More from VisitEngland

* This story was first published by Forward Publishing in 2006. Liked this? Try also Talking contemporary art in Burgundy.

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Story of the week: Well-dressing traditions in Derbyshire



* With May Bank Holiday approaching, this piece takes a look at one of Britain’s more unusual summer traditions.

As ever, follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS, for weekly updates from my travel-writing archive in the months to come.

* Image: www.peakdistrictinformation.com/features/wellart.php

The villagers around rural Derbyshire do it every year.

It draws on ancient English folklore relating to the natural environment. It is the ancient art of well dressing and retired joiner, Roger Stubbins, 72, from the Derbyshire farming village of Barlow, is one of its leading exponents.

Well, he does have 48 years of experience. “My parents brought me to see the well dressing as a little boy,” he says.

“I still remember the sense of occasion that day with the fair and the main street full of people.”

Celtic origins 

Well dressers decorate springs and wells with materials provided entirely by nature. The tradition is thought to originate from a Celtic thanksgiving rite for fresh water and has become a cornerstone of Derbyshire’s rural heritage.

The process takes a wooden frame, packed with soft, wet clay, and transforms by it into a colourful but transient artwork.

Each year a new picture, often depicting a biblical scene, is hand drawn and the outline craved out before being filled with freshly gathered flowers, moss and heather. It’s an organic process with a team of seven to ten people working solidly for nearly two weeks.

Of the 80 wells around Derbyshire to be dressed between May and September, the Barlow well is one of the best know.

Records show villagers have been dressing it every year since at least 1800 with the pump added in 1840. Today, it still attracts huge crowds of visitors, including coach parties touring local wells, and raises over £1,000 for local charities in the process with its on-site collection boxes.

Each village has a different technique. Barlow uses whole flowers, not fragments or petals, and late-summer flowers coming into season, such as marigolds, yarrow and chamomile.

The team spends a week foraging for materials and preparing the frame, then a further five days actually dressing the well itself. The final stage comes when the local vicar blesses their handiwork and leads a procession of over 200 people through the village to the fairground.

“I started dressing in my early twenties. I used to take a week off work and we would work 5am to 10pm, eating all out meals in the pub garden opposite,” says Roger.

“Today we take a bit longer over it, but I still enjoy the banter and the companionship. We have a good laugh together.”

Visitors are welcome to watch the work in progress and some even feel moved to join in. For details, collect a booklet from the tourist office in nearby Chesterfield with dates for dressings and blessings around the county.

Handed down

To the well-dressing cognoscenti, however, it’s an intricate and time-consuming affair. The process follows a strict set of guidelines passed down through the generations from father to son and, in recent years, father to daughter.

The secret, explains Roger, is to mark out the outline of the picture with bark before applying the flowers.

“Everyone has their own bark,” he says, his work-worn hands clutching slithers of larch. “I’ve used the same bark for 48 years and I’m the third owner of it. It was passed down to me by the men who taught me how to dress and I vowed to keep it safe.”

This year Barlow is departing from the usual triptych design to produce one large, single image, based on the story of Christ and the fishermen.

Over the years Roger and his co-workers have tackled the likes of The Last Supper, Adam and Eve and Saint Francis of Assisi. The year they marked the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar proved a particularly testing one.

“It’s always hard getting it in proportion,” says Roger. “We use yarrow for the sky but, some years, supplies are scare, so we simply have to make a smaller sky.”

Another problem is training up the next generation of well dressers. Many of the villagers started dressing as children but move away in search of work and never come back.

“I’m the oldest now. We’ve got a couple of young ‘uns in their forties. Some people are very enthusiastic in the first year but, when they realise how much hard work is involved, they’re not so keen to come back,” he says.

Autumn leaves 

Like the changing of the seasons, the well-dressing tradition reaches its crescendo in September. As the last flowers wilt, the frame is taken down and stored for another year at the local pub.

“When we take it down and I go home, I feel a bit lost. I’ve lived with the well every day for a fortnight,” says Roger.

“But we’ll be back next year as it’s a huge part of the local community,” he adds.

“I think it’s essential to keep these village traditions alive.”